Archive for December, 2008

Vermeer, globe trotter or spaceman?

December 8th, 2008

If my math skills are not as bad as I suspect, within two years 13 canvases by the Vermeer will have collectively travelled no less than 98,179 miles (see the post below with a list of travelling paintings and their destinations). To give you a more tangible idea of the distance involved, the circumference of the earth is 24,902 miles. Don’t forget, 98,179 miles is nearly half way to the moon.

On the other hand, the longest documented trip made by the artist was Delft-Amsterdam. That’s 66 miles round trip, as the crow flies.

Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #3

December 8th, 2008

The first time I saw the Woman with a Pearl Necklace was at the block-buster exhibit of 21 Vermeer paintings in Washington. The room where it hung was so congested that I barely resisted an hour. Under the circumstances the work left no impression and the mental image I had previously drawn from scores of reproductions remained unscathed.

My next encounter was 7 years later at the Madrid Vermeer and the Dutch Interior exhibition. Again, it was a jam-packed event with a minimum of 5 viewers per painting. This time, however, I was resolved to make the best of the situation and held my viewing ground as much as good manners permitted.

The picture made an unforgettable impression but one particular passage left me puzzled: on the left-hand side the girl’s gray gown was a dark rectangular area that made little sense (it cannot be seen in any reproduction). At first glance it suggested a dark recess in the woman’s gown but, in effect, it was far too wide and too dark for that. Was it Vermeer caught in an off-moment, the consequence of decay, faulty restoration or something else?

Recently, I was once again able to observe the picture which is on temporarily loan here in Rome. Even though the lighting is dreadfully low, a pair of strong reading glasses allowed me to draw close the canvas without tripping the alarm and see more than I had before.

The paint layer of the passage in question does not appear flawed; on the contrary, it seemed to have been deliberately and carefully executed. After a few moments of close inspection I noticed the presence of a very fine blurred line of light gray paint that runs parallel to the area’s right-hand edge dividing the dark into two parallel strips. Click on the schematic drawing above for an enlargement and see what I mean.

It struck me that instead of representing a part of the girl’s gown altered by some variance of illumination or fold, this passage might describe two decorative strips of black or near-black fabric sewn down the front of the gown. One such gown is worn by the seated lady in Gerrit Terborch’s Lady Peeling an Apple in Vienna (see detail left). Vermeer himself may have rendered a similar, but darker garment in his early Woman Reading a Letter at an Open Window.

While knowing exactly what kind of gown the young lady adorns hardly alters the “meaning” of the painting, to me it helps to underline the care with which Vermeer treated the accouterments of the women he loved to paint.

The price of fame

December 5th, 2008

“When Johannes Vermeer painted Girl With a Pearl Earring more than 300 years ago, he couldn’t have foreseen how his iconic portrait would one day be reproduced – or just how tiny that portrait could be.

How tiny? A University of Montreal researcher has rendered the famous image within a single drop of liquid vitamin on a microscope’s glass slide, reducing the portrait’s dimensions to a mere 200 microns – about the width of two human hairs.”

If that is not enough, read the whole article.

Errata corrige

December 4th, 2008

In a recent post I wrote that there are virtually no art history blogs of the net. Instead, two interesting ones have been brought to my attention: The Art History Newsletter by Jonathan Lackman and The Art Tribune by Didier Rykner. Keep them coming.

Update: the travelling Vermeer count

December 3rd, 2008

The Louvre will be sending about 70 artworks to Japan in 2009 for a special exhibition of 17th c. paintings, The Louvre Museum Exhibition: 17th Century European Masterpieces. The exhibition will be held at the National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo and the Kyoto Municipal Museum of Art and will include Vermeer’s dazzling little Lacemaker.

Not all are elated as the NTV who sponsors the event. Read Didier Rykner’s The Louvre without Vermeer at the Art Tribune.

The Lacemaker’s voyage adds a notch to the current “travelling-Vermeer count, 2008-2010” which now stands firm at 13 (two pictures make two trips each). This boils down to the fact that one third of Vermeer’s known artistic output will be travelling tens of thousands of miles within the span of a mere two years.

  1. The Astronomer – Atlanta 2008
  2. The Little Street – Tokyo 2008
  3. Diana and her Companions – Tokyo 2008
  4. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – Tokyo 2008
  5. Young Woman Seated at the Virginals – Tokyo 2008
  6. Woman with her Maid – Tokyo 2008
  7. Girl with the Wineglass – Tokyo 2008
  8. Lady Writing – Pasadena 2008
  9. Woman with a Pearl Necklace – Rome 2008
  10. The Lacemaker – Tokyo and Kyoto 2009
  11. The Astronomer – Minneapolis 2010
  12. Christ in the House of Martha and Mary – The Hague 2010
  13. The Procuress – The Hague – 2010

Secrets of a 17th-c. damsel – #2

December 1st, 2008

Although the signature on Vermeer’s Woman with a Pearl Necklace cannot be made out in any reproduction, one has no problem finding it when directly viewing the work. It is discreetly positioned on the side of the massive extendable oak table (parallel to the picture plane) slightly to the right on the slate-blue tablecloth (click on the image to the left to enlarge the schematic drawing I recently made of the area in question). It is executed with a delicate but firm touch using a slightly darker pigment than the base tone of the background. The typical monogram (IVM in ligature) is a bit clearer than the following ”eer”.

On those mature canvases which bear signatures, Vermeer declined to adopt the conventional formulae of signing in the lower left- or right-hand corner where it presumably might not disturb the aesthetic balance of the composition. Instead he positioned it in assorted places subtly varying its size, tonality and style. At times it is more prominent and at times more discreet always but it is always done with an infallible sense of pictorial design.

One senses that for Vermeer, the signature may have had an additional function other than simply claiming authorship.

Another curious little “secret” in this work that cannot be seen in reproductions is the presence of two circle-like forms to the right of the signature. Although they are clearly deliberate, they are so faint that they can easily be missed, I failed to spot them both times I had previously viewed the canvas. On close inspection, the upper one is composed of two tiny concentric circles which suggest a doughnut like form. The lower one appears to describe a delicately semi-spherical relief.

I have not a clue what these forms represent but they must have meant something otherwise Vermeer would not have painted them with such finesse.

Mauritshuis blog

December 1st, 2008

The Mauritshuis (home of Vermeer’s Girl with a Pearl Earring, View of Delft and Diana and her Companions) has launched their own blog which is perhaps a first for such a prestigious collection. For the moment it can only be accessed from the Dutch website but is nonetheless it is written in English.

Presently, it not quite clear how the Mauritshuis counts on handling public interaction. There appears to be no way to leave comment from the blog’s platform and, in effect, the blog’s author(s) remains anonymous.

Since the Mauritshuis prizes public dialogue and has such excellent organizational capabilities, I imagine that their objectives will be more precisely defined in the near future.

Museums have been painfully slow to develop blogs and community sites which would seem a logical (and incredibly inexpensive) extension of their goal of public awareness.